What this all builds into is a thoughtful, complicated picture of womanhood—and a fierce argument for individual choice. The reality Zumas conceives is much like the reality of any society where abortion is outlawed: Deprived of options, women go to increasingly desperate and unsafe lengths to end their pregnancies. Teenagers fleeing to Canada face the “Pink Wall,” a diplomatic agreement that allows border police to detain and forcibly test any woman or girl whom they suspect to be seeking an abortion. Without access to comprehensive sexual education, Mattie and her friends share old wives’ tales and snippets of hearsay that invariably fail them. But something else happens, too. Women like Gin become de facto healthcare providers, offering remedies that Ro describes as being “thousands of years in the making, fine-tuned by women in the dark creases of history, helping each other.” Activist groups emerge with names like the “Polyphonte Collective,” which nod to the forbidding history of women being punished for their reproductive decisions.
That Red Clocks does all this while portraying the everyday existence of four such different characters in persuasive, gripping language is striking. Zumas isn’t an idealist—she’s fully aware of the ways in which women think about each other, and the conditioning that turns minor encounters into contests or conflicts. But she’s also steeped her book in history, which fills in the gaps between her characters. Gin is descended from Maria Hallett, an 18th-century woman abandoned by a pirate whose reclusiveness led to her being labeled as a witch. Ro is obsessed with uncovering the life story of Mínervudottír, whose biographical fragments precede each chapter, and who couldn’t stop striving for an extraordinary life, a life “in which survival was not assured.”
Zumas, an author and professor of creative writing at Portland State University, reportedly based some of the novel on her own experiences undergoing fertility treatment. In these chapters, Red Clocks is relentlessly interrogative but always humane. Ro asks herself over and over again why she wants to be a mother, and can only answer, Because I do. The desire, she deduces, must come from “some creaturely place, pre-civilized, some biological throb that floods her bloodways with the message Make more of yourself.” But even in her most desperate moments Ro never lets her desires supersede anyone else’s. The paradox of fertility, where teenagers procreate effortlessly against their wills and adult women with means find they’ve left it too late, is a bittersweet joke in Ro’s mind, but not one she’s willing to compromise other women’s choices for—her own difficulty conceiving doesn’t change her belief that every women should have autonomy over her own body.
With such a provocative premise, you might expect Red Clocks to be an activist novel, or a polemical one. But the political circumstances of the novel are sidelined to only the most essential moments of exposition, in snatches of memories about women’s marches (and a fleeting mention that PBS has lost its government funding and is forced to air commercials for control-top panty hose). Red Clocks instead is deeply, intentionally personal. Rather than trafficking in sweeping generalizations or one-size-fits-all dictates, it focuses on the uniqueness of all of its characters, who are nevertheless linked by the immutability of their bodies. The familiarity of the book’s world, just a step removed from our own reality, is the most shocking thing about it.